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Was it acceptable for British Airways to fire a male worker for having “girl’s hair”?

Written by Zen Terrelonge on Monday, 13 August 2018. Posted in Diversity, People

After starting his job at customer services for British Airways, it wasn’t long before Sid Ouared found himself hauled in front of management for his hairstyle choice

Was it acceptable for British Airways to fire a male worker for having “girl’s hair”?

In the startup world, it’s common for leaders to seek the unique and diverse qualities within their staff members in order to enrich the ideas and creativity being churned around within the business. Apparently it’s a different story for corporate firms, especially in the aviation industry.

It’s come to light that a Sid Ouared, a former customer services worker at British Airways was released by his employer – not for aggressive behaviour or failing to complete the duties required in his role but for his choice of haircut.

Adopting the man bun, a style that’s been worn by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Hemsworth and Jason Momoa to name a few, Ouared’s bosses at the airline allegedly didn’t believe the look seen on A-listers was appropriate for their new recruit. After just a fortnight in his role, management came knocking and he was given an ultimatum that led to his sacking, reports ITV News.

“They pretty much dismissed me on the claims that my hair is ‘like a girl’s hair’ if I was to quote it like that,” Ouared said. “They in fact said my hair doesn’t conform with uniform standards despite the fact that there are thousands of female BA staff members who have the exact same hairstyle as myself. They gave me three options, which was to either cut my hair, to either put it in a turban or get dreadlocks – the latter two, I’m not a Sikh nor am I a Rastafarian.”

The ex-BA staff member says his treatment left him feeling both bullied and violated, while he described the actions as obscene. The British Airways Uniform Wearer Standards handbook, which was last updated three years ago, says men’s hair “must be clean, tidy, well groomed and neatly styled so that it remains in place whilst working.” It has criteria for different hair styles, such as the length permitted for spikes and afros, while ponytails are only acceptable for dreadlocks. But interestingly, the man bun isn’t directly mentioned. 

If Ouared’s hair was such a concern, it begs the question: why wasn’t it addressed during the interview or on his first day on the job? Why two weeks later? After all, the BBC reports he was informed of tattoo and piercing policies but no mention of hairstyles took place.

Discussing British Airways’ actions from a reputational perspective with Elite Business, Michelle Turner, PR and social media account manager at No Brainer, the communications agency, said: "This story is an interesting one and clearly there are some important points on both sides.

British Airways wants to maintain the image it’s built its brand around and you can see why uniform standards are an important part of that. But the argument really centres around what constitutes a conventional standard of appearance in 2018 and questions whether the current BA policy has moved with the times.”

An August study from CV-Library, the job site, found that men are judged for their appearance at work than women and the British Airways news does little to suggest otherwise. Turner suggested the national coverage of the event will be  a “PR headache” for the travel firm and added “it will be interesting to see what kind of response they do make when the time comes,” although British Airways has so far declined to issue a comment.

However, it’s been suggested by Billie Dee, head of diversity at Thinking Hat PR, that the decision treads into far more sinister territory that goes beyond brand. "In my personal opinion, this is flagrant discrimination,” she said. “This story raises deep-set issues that certain ethnicities have faced in western culture because of their natural hair. Members of the Afro-Caribbean community for example have been discriminated against for decades because of their natural, kinky hair, which certain employers deem ‘messy’ or ‘inappropriate’ or ‘rebellious’. This is racism. Why is there so much pressure on ethnic diversities to either look ‘white’ or conform to religious stereotypes in order to be accepted in a professional environment?”

Dee, who is mixed race, explained she straightened her hair of years in order to fit in with the professional workplace, which damaged her hair as a result. This resulted in her getting braids, a move that made her anxious for fear of negativity when applying for jobs. “So many [people] in the black community permanently wear wigs or spend hundreds of pounds on weaves and use dangerous chemical straightening products to conform to western culture,” said Dee. “Why does it have to be like this? Why are we still being punished for looking different in 2018?

"It's BA's loss. Creating a culture which makes employees fearful of being their authentic selves will hamper diversity, which in turn limits the company's ability to understand and deliver for their diverse customer base."

Offering an entrepreneurial leadership position, Andy King, managing director of Sell Your Jam Jar, the online car valuation service, said: "It’s never acceptable to fire someone because of their hairstyle. Diversity and progressive culture is essential to wider business goals as a whole, which is more important today than ever.” King believes it’s reductive and close-minded to snub team members based on style choices, insisting it’s no indicator of their ability to get the job done. 

“It also sends a wider message to other companies that it’s alright to discriminate in this way, as well as enforcing gender norms that males cannot have long hair whilst this is not an issue for woman,” King continued. “At the heart of a successful business lies the team and in order to champion an inclusive company culture you need absolute respect and trust. Discriminating against a member of the team due to their appearance directly undermines this, for that individual member of staff as well as others within the team.” The result of this will mean less engaged staff, duties falling over and reluctant candidate prospects on the back of the fallout, said King.

Offering another entrepreneurial perspective, Carl Reader, director at d&t, the chartered accountants, said: “I got suspended from school for cropping and bleaching my hair like the footballers did at Euro 96. This helped form my views on this – if the person is good enough, they are good enough. And by employing the right person they’ll do the right thing when it comes to appearance. Well maintained hair of any style or colour is preferable to bad hygiene or an unkempt appearance. After all, I’m hardly one to comment, with tattooed hands and neck.”

Elsewhere, Gina Hutchings, founder of The Treatment Tester, the aesthetics marketing company, was less sympathetic to Ouared’s experience. “I manage a team of eight and think appearances really matter,” she said to Elite Business. Hutchings noted that a smart appearance is an important value and will shape an opinion of someone from the get-go. “For a customer-facing role your appearance is key. Especially in the airline industry where women are expected to wear makeup, even choose the correct lip colour. Why shouldn’t men be subjected to scrutiny?”

While the firing of Ouared raises questions about ethics, management skills and also public relations, it’s a different story as a legal matter, explained Bethan Southcombe, head of employment at Howells Solicitors, the legal firm. She said: “This is a subject that has been in the courts many times over the years. It has been held by the Court of Appeal that applying different rules for men and women based on what is ‘conventional’ for the sexes is not of itself less favourable treatment, provided the requirements are ‘even-handed’.”

Southcombe followed up to add with that in mind, once it’s accepted that dress code doesn’t need to be identical across genders, “a ‘package’ approach to less favourable treatment must necessarily follow.” She said: “So whilst this individual, and other people with man buns, may not think this is fair, it is not deemed to be discriminatory.”

This is clearly a grey area but it’s abundantly clear that British Airways’ approach leaves much to be desired and may well leave people questioning if it’s an employer they would like a future with, as King suggested, which is something startups should take heed of. 

About the Author

Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge

As editor, Terrelonge can be found on the hunt for all things startup and scaleup – that's when he's not busy talking babies via DADult Life. Whether it's health or hospitality, food or philanthropy, tech or travel, he'll be seeking out the most interesting entrepreneurial developments to run in the magazine and online.

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